TORONTO - Children who aren't reading well by the end of Grade 3 are at risk of dropping out or failing to graduate, warns a new report released as kids across the country get back to their school routines.

But just because youngsters are attending classes, it doesn't necessarily mean they're mastering those all-important reading and writing skills in an expected time frame.

At least 30 per cent of students don't have sufficient reading or writing abilities by the end of Grade 6, says the report by the Canadian Education Statistics Council.

The report notes that about five million students are returning to school, but if nothing changes, at least one million won't graduate.

"A large number of students who are failing to complete high school are failing to complete because they haven't picked up a golden ticket along the way," says principal investigator Julia O'Sullivan, dean of education at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont.

"And the golden ticket, as far as I'm concerned, is the ability to read and write well enough to support success in school."

The council is a partnership between the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, and Statistics Canada. For the report on key factors to support literacy success in the school-aged population, O'Sullivan reviewed literature from around the world.

One of the problems, she argues, is that the emphasis on teaching reading and writing in Canadian schools begins to fade after about Grade 4.

"By the time you get to junior high, it's not there at all. And so junior-high teachers expect that students are coming to them able to read and write well enough to learn from textbooks and to write what they know and think. And that's an expectation that we really have to change."

So, too, does training for aspiring educators who will be imparting reading and writing skills in the classroom.

The report says the International Reading Association recommends that primary teachers have 280 hours of instruction in reading and how to teach it.

But it notes that many Canadian teacher education programs fall substantially short of that goal, and many elementary teachers report feeling inadequately prepared when they begin to teach reading - especially if the students are struggling.

"The average amount of time dedicated to teacher education programs to preparing teachers to teach reading is between 24 and 36 hours, and it simply won't do," O'Sullivan said in an interview Friday.

At Western, she said her faculty has increased the amount of time in the program threefold, and "we're going to do more."

"Every graduate of a faculty of education should go on and be able to teach reading from the first day on the job," she said.

"And then they should have the supports from the school and the board throughout their career to help them build on their expertise."

Melody Paruboczy, executive director of the Movement for Canadian Literacy, says approximately 46 per cent of adults in Canada aged 16 to 65 don't have literacy skills at the level needed to function fully in our information-based society.

"If we could improve the literacy of the children within the school system, that would certainly go a long way towards helping us deal with the literacy issues in the adult population."

Paruboczy says the causes behind people falling behind in their reading and writing are varied, and can range from learning disabilities to improper support, issues at home, and even hunger, which can hamper ability to concentrate.

O'Sullivan said the graduation rate in many European countries is much higher than in Canada, where it hovers around 77 per cent.

In Denmark, she said it's 96 per cent, while it's 91 per cent in Finland and 92 per cent in Poland.

"If I was in charge of education in Canada, I would say any student who enters Grade 7 without sufficient reading and writing proficiency for school success, for those students, everything stops, and we teach them to read. Everything stops. Otherwise, what's the point of it?"

Paruboczy says one of her group's committee members who gained literacy skills as an adult recounted how she would put her hand up and head to the washroom every time she expected she'd be called upon to read aloud in class as a child.

But once, the teacher asked her to read after her return, and she told the story from memory.

"And although the kids were kind of teasing her and saying, 'That's not how the story goes, that's not what it says,' the teacher quite nicely said, 'OK, thank you very much,' and moved on to the next child," Paruboczy said.

"There was nothing done for her at that time to help her improve her literacy skills."

Various organizations are supporting International Literacy Day next Tuesday, and urging people to read a book, newspaper, magazine or online articles, learn a new recipe, add to a blog or sign up for a community course.

And parents, added Paruboczy, should read to their children.